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Learning to Speak Jewish

When I was growing up in southern Brooklyn, everyone I knew was Black, Jewish or Italian.

I wasn't aware of Protestants until I was in high school and I was utterly flummoxed by the idea that Catholics and Protestants fought wars against each other. After all, they were all gentiles - what did they have to fight about?

When I was a kid, Jewish Ed Koch was the mayor, Italian Mario Cuomo was governor and I was acutely aware of the tribe to which I belonged. My family never went to synagogue, my nominal bar mitzvah was an afterthought and I have very fond memories of my grandmother making me cheeseburgers, but nevertheless, I was entirely clear that I was Jewish.

I'm 38 and in many ways, I grew up at the tail end of the heyday of New York secular Judaism. Mark Oppenheimer, who writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times, writes about that world and about how it was "thick" in the sense that one could live in a community of people with common history, common cultural touchstones, common texts, common aspirations. He writes:

"Now, there were about three generations of Jews who in the United States who had the luxury of being cultural Jews, in a very thick way, despite not being religious at all. If you were a radical at City College in the 1930s, or a Miami Beach transplant in the 1960s, or a Catskills vacationer, or a Great Neck suburbanite, you could still live among Jews or ex-Jewish communists or psychotherapists or schmatte salesmen and watch Woody Allen and eat bagels and complain that Philip Roth wasn’t good for the Jews, and all of that felt very thickly Jewish. Between the immigrant generation and yesterday, there were available in the United States some secular Jewish identities for people who felt very Jewish but had no interest in Jewish religious observance."

My children, however, are growing up in a very different world and not just because we live in the Hudson Valley. As well described by the Pew Report on American Judaism, that strong sense of secular -- and essentially ethnic -- Judaism is fading fast.

Perhaps this isn't a problem. After all, at one time, it seemed there was a big difference between being a Galitzianer Jew and a Ukrainian Jew; in America, those differences faded. However imperfectly, America has absorbed vast numbers of ethnic groups and over time and homogenized them (or at least those with white skin) into a more or less undifferentiated mass. My grandchildren will be five generations removed from an ancestor born in Europe. Will they care -- or even know -- about their ethnic pedigree?

I hope that my grandchildren will inherit will a Judaism whose content makes sense to them in 2034, not a Judaism nostalgic for what made sense to me in 2014 or their great-great-grandparents in 1914.

To foster a Judaism that nourishes us and provides us with the thick sense of community that many of us seek, two things are necessary, two things that are thankfully happening here in the Hudson Valley.

The first is investing - spending the time and energy to feel at home in Judaism. Whether we were born Jewish, we converted, we are married to someone Jewish or we are just exploring Judaism, we need to spend time with Judaism as it currently is in order for it to make sense to us.  As Oppenheimer writes elsewhere, for those of us who didn't grow up with the content of Judaism as our native language, learning it can be thought of as learning an instrument or a foreign language - at first, frustrating, but ultimately a source of joy.

The second is recognizing that the facet of Judaism that is most commonly presented - formal, frontal prayer - is not necessarily the whole picture, anymore than the United States Legal Code is a full picture of America. Even though I think traditional prayer is incredibly powerful, Judaism is more - much more -- than prayer. Elissa Strauss is the co-director of LABA, a laboratory for Jewish culture that uses classic Jewish texts to inspire the creation of art, dialogue and study, and she writes,

What was I turned off by? Oy. Basically everything all the big philanthropists push on us. Zionism, holocaust remembrance... and boring Friday night services at allegedly progressive synagogues. Before... I had no idea, really zero, about the richness and complexity of the Jewish canon. But of course I didn’t. Nobody, not once, had ever invited me to come learn stories from the Talmud, Torah and Mishnah in all their wacky and rich vibrancy. I didn’t even know the difference between those texts... and had always assumed they were, for the most part, moralistic, prescriptive and therefore flat. I fell absolutely in love with Jewish texts, and even more in love with the chance to study them in a completely open-minded, god-free, cheap-wine filled setting.

This is unapologetically not the question of how to get more Jews in the pews, but how do we let the complexity of the Jewish tradition flourish so that all who want to find nourishment in the richness of the Jewish tradition can.

So, what does this mean tuches offn tish, as my grandmother of the cheeseburgers would say. What does this mean when you put your rear in gear and make something happen?

It means, in short, recognizing that the ethnic Judaism that characterised my childhood and much of the 20th century in America is gone and not coming back. It's recognizing that if we want Judaism to nourish us and nourish our children, if we want a thick community that will give shape to the lives we actually live, then we need to invest in the Judaism that is and take ownership to make it what we want it to become.

Wed, May 25 2022 24 Iyyar 5782